Who Comes Up With This?

New Math, Old Music

My wife is also a teacher, although she is of the math/science variety as opposed to my music/social studies focus. In the past couple of years there’s been quite a bit of angst where we are in Alberta about the ‘New Math’, and so I get quite a bit of information on that subject.

A quick aside for those of you that are either not aware of or just hazy on what ‘New Math’ is. The math curriculum in Alberta (and many of the curricula across Canada, as well) was revamped in the past few years to explicitly downplay ‘basic skills’ (this would be like those times-tables worksheet many of my and earlier generations did) and try to emphasize ‘discovery learning’ or ‘progressive education’ (letting student find their own personal approach to something like long division – also can involve teaching 5-6 different methods and letting students pick the one they favour). This wave is commonly referred to as the ‘New Math’ and is widely debated amongst education professionals and parents alike.

Okay, back on track. I’ve written before about the downwards trend in Canada’s international math scores rankings. The occasion that prompted this entry was a great article in this weekend’s Globe and Mail (I am a shameful sucker for a real print newspaper – I just love the feeling of reading a paper with a big cup of coffee). It talked in great depth about the ‘problem’ of math in Canadian education systems today, and examined both sides of the ‘New Math’ versus ‘old math’ debate.

I, of course, showed it to my wife, since she is intimately familiar with the material. She read it over, chuckled at a few lines, and tossed out a few ones that she really thought hit the mark. She only asked me one question throughout the entire reading, near the end, but it crystallized for me exactly what I felt about this debate.

The question she asked dealt with the following passage:

“Both sides like to use a music analogy to make their case. The ‘basic skills’ camp asks: Can someone become [sic] proficient musician without learning the scales and where the notes sit on the staff? The ‘progressive education’ side counters: What’s the point of drilling young musicians on scales, if they want to give up the instrument as soon as their parents will allow?”

After reading that, she turned to me with a bemused smile and asked: “You’re a musician; what do you think of that comparison?”

My reaction was instantaneous and obvious – it’s a ludicrous question. I would never ever spend all of my instructional time drilling only scales or only note names. That, as astutely noted above, leads inevitably to frustration and boredom, especially with younger, less-disciplined students.

However, neither will I ever spend all of my instructional time allowing students to ‘discover’ for themselves what the note names are. You’re not going to ‘discover’ that A440 is A440 by intuition and problem-solving, because it’s an arbitrary label. That’s something you just have to memorize. Stuff that falls into this category also might include getting students to ‘feel’ and ‘listen’ their way towards playing a familiar tune. You can do some of that, but more complex songs are out of their reach without at least some guidance on where to start (which you can’t have without basic knowledge such as note names, key signatures, etc.).

It’s worth noting that most teachers I have met and talked to feel similarly about this whole ‘New Math’ thing – there are some really good ideas in there, but it can be confusing and the de-emphasis of basic skills does not do much to ease anyone’s passage through the higher levels of math in particular.

I think that you don’t need to be all-or-nothing on this issue. There’s no sense in completely disregarding some things that we know work. We know that memorizing times-tables and such really does have effects on your ability to perform more complex calculations. However, we also know that merely having students sit in rows and recite mindless lists does nothing for their engagement or problem-solving skills.

So, as it turns out, the healthy balance is necessary. Just as I cannot produce an Alain Trudel or Wynton Marsalis without some basic scales and drill work, neither will I stifle that burgeoning mastery by forbidding them to play something that speaks to them until an arbitrary line of 12 memorized scales and reading in multiple clefs is crossed.

A final thought, again mostly from my wife: she mentioned as she finished the article that most teachers agree that you need a well-rounded math curriculum that doesn’t simply forget about basic skills. She also concluded that this is what happens when you have an education system being run by people who have no background or experience in education. Just as you don’t want a math teacher who actually has no math training (which is whole other can of worms, by the way; it is scary how many teachers get thrown subjects that they have no previous training in because of lack of funding), it’s mind-boggling when you look down a list of the ministries of education in Canada and realize how few of the major officials have any experience in a classroom.

Let’s stop worrying about doing things one way or another, but designing a system that allows the people in it to take all the best elements and use them effectively for the good of those that really matter – the students.

What Makes You Smarter?

Okay. I’m going to level with you. The title’s a bit of a red herring, a hook, if you will. That provocative rhetoric that gets you to click through and read.

The reason I mention this is that I don’t believe there is something that makes you smarter. At least, not in the way that people are always using the word.

I’m a stickler for language. In part, I have my father to blame for that (seriously, if you were to ever meet my father and inadvertently respond to the question “How are you?” with “Good”, be prepared to be grilled on what good you are doing to the world or be instantly corrected with “You mean, ‘well’”. A friend of mine swears he hears my father’s voice in his head when he makes a grammar mistake), but the larger part comes from my own love of playing with words and the amount of time I have spent either teaching or sub teaching in English classrooms. As a result of this tendency, I take real issue with the way our society uses and describes ‘smart’.

Here’s the usage that’s been bugging me the most over the past five years:

“Studies suggest ________ (insert music/art/phys-ed/etc. here) makes you smarter.”

If you’re still with me through the language pedantry, allow me to explain why I think this is not only inaccurate, but stunningly unhelpful to society as a whole.

Firstly, I would be willing to bet not-inconsiderate sums of money that anyone using this particular connotation of ‘smarter’ disagrees with every other person using this connotation as to what ‘smarter’ actually means. The reasoning behind this is pretty clear-cut: we don’t, as a society, have a consensus definition as to what constitutes ‘intelligence’. Even my replacing of the term ‘smart’ with ‘intelligence’ might have its objectors.

Let’s break that down more explicitly. In using that statement, do you mean that the individual is scoring better on I.Q. tests? That they have improved math performance? That they read at a higher level? Are more likely to complete post-secondary programs of education? Have a higher likelihood of a stable, long-term, and more successful career? Some combination of the above? Or a yet-more-technical definition involving detailed neurological studies?

All of the things I just listed have their individual problems. For example, I.Q. tests are increasingly proven to be less than helpful in determining a broad spectrum of intellectual performance, whereas claiming that math alone is a good indicator of intelligence is a shamefully limiting statement.

On a more personal note, I’d like to tackle the statement I hear a lot of in my field: “Music makes you smarter”. My issue with this has less to do with the intellectual performance indicators therein and more with the bias indicated by the statement.

I have no quibble with the fact that studying music can increase certain intellectual performance indicators, or the fact that training in music can have broad-spectrum influences on other skills. My problem lies in the idea that you should be doing something in service to being perceived as smarter. “Do this activity, not because it is a fulfilling activity, or because it is something you love, but because it has a utilitarian bonus”. In particular, this has been a problem in the fight to keep music education alive and current. “Do music because it helps math.” “Do music because your I.Q. goes up.”

That’s the language and inherent implication aspect of it. Let me finish with a discussion that actually deals with the question I posed as the title of this post. Surprise! An actual answer – decoy red herring as the title. How’s that for subverted expectations?

There is only one factor, and only one, that truly, in all instances, across all studies, and across all societies, that increases a variety of any and all intellectual performance factors, regardless of social background, economic status, and neurological peculiarities. That factor is the person themselves, and their desired to self-improve.

If you work at it, and attempt to apply your brain to the task, then it doesn’t really matter what field you are studying, or what the environment is – your intelligence, your skills, your smartness (ugh, I still don’t like the term) is going to improve. Now, how much it will improve can still be influenced by any number of things. Someone with an excellent teacher scales the ladder faster than a person suffering beneath an oppressive and disinterested instructor. But all humans are capable of learning things and improving their intellectual performance.

There’s a good reason that the people who work hardest are the ones graduating at the top of their class in post-secondary and the ones getting the best jobs, as opposed to those who have excellent natural ability at something. Because they are continually working to gain that intelligence, and all of the research shows that that will stick longer as a result.

There is a dual term for this individual outlook I want to close with. People tend to fall into one of two broad categories when it comes to defining intelligence: incremental or entity theories of intelligence.

People who align more closely with entity theories of intelligence tend to believe that humans have more or less a fixed level of talent. They will use statements like “I have always been dumb at math”, or “When it comes to mechanical problems, I’m just really smart, not for anything else”. As a result, they will subscribe intellectual achievements to factors outside their control and tend to put less effort into deep understanding because they believe themselves and others as either capable or not.

On the other hand, incremental theorists approach from a viewpoint of continual improvement through effort. They tend to make responses like “I worked hard, and I’ve gotten better at it as a result”, or “Well, of course I’m not very good at math – I’ve never really put in the time and effort to understand it”. Intellectual achievement or abilities are ascribed to the person’s desire to change their own brain and efficacy.

So, to conclude, I really wish we would stop having conversations about ‘X’ making us ‘smarter’ in our society, and more conversations about ways that children and adults can better use their efforts in any field to improve themselves and their abilities. I have any number of personal theories on how to accomplish this, but of course, I have a lot left to work on in my own brain, so I’ll leave the heavy lifting to those who’ve put in a lot more time and effort on this subject than I have.

Cheers, and good luck with that sudoku puzzle that’s been killing your brain over the past week. Keep at it!

The Perception of Discrimination

In the news this week, there were several articles talking about a young girl of First Nations descent who got in trouble for wearing a hoodie to school. It wasn’t a sexual or profane garment, simply a hoodie with a ‘front/back’ slogan in two parts. The front said “Got land?” and the back said “Thank an Indian”

For any of you who don’t work within or around the education system, the response followed a fairly typical process:

1. Someone connected to the school (either student or parent or volunteer, it varies from case to case) complained about the garment offending them.

2. The student in question was asked to not wear it to school anymore by the principal.

3. Family and friends of student in question contested that decision, and meetings were had.

The eventual result of this process was that the student was allowed to wear the garment at school, but like most contentious situations in education, it didn’t end there. Some people are still campaigning for this garment to not be allowed, with at least one vocal source saying that it is “racist” in nature.

It was a follow-up article interviewing one of these individuals that caught my eye; or rather, a single statement made by that individual within that article:

“No white kid could walk into a school with a shirt that says that in reverse.”

Digression for the sake of context:

I am a privileged white male between 25 and 30, of nominally well-off middle class, highly educated, and living in an area of the country, province, and my particular city which is not noteworthy for particular societal problems. Now, fortunately for me, I have a number of friends who are very conscious of subjects like minority rights and social justice who have done their best over the years to keep me apprised of the difficulties in those respects. If it were not for those people, I might have absolutely no understanding of the far less ‘lucky’ perspectives I’m about to discuss. That said, I am still a privileged 25-30 white male with a stable family income and a history of higher education/technology usage, so we have to assume I’m at least a little subconsciously biased here.

/end contextual digression

The thought that immediately stuck me upon reading that quote was: “Of course a white kid would get in trouble for that quote on a shirt” – but before you jump on me, let me explain why I think you’d still get in trouble for that quote, and it’s not because I think there’s a weird ‘anti-majority’ discrimination going on.

Speaking from a realm of personal experience in education, the reason that would be getting a ‘white student’ (man, are racial descriptors tough to work with) in trouble would be because the quote makes absolutely no sense from the other side. The First Nations did not sail across the Atlantic with greatly-advanced weaponry, technology, and a host of illnesses the locals had no immunity to, and then proceed to take over 90% of the land which had been common usage for thousands of years. The largely-white European conquerors did that.

I mean, hypothetically speaking, if the First Nations peoples had had access to the kinds of weapons, technology, and medical science that the Europeans had, I would not be here right now, and probably neither would Canada or the USA in their current forms. How many continental European wars of the time ended with the complete subjugation of another people and the successive resettlement of the locals into gradually smaller and smaller areas until entire groups were virtually wiped out?

So, I see little justification for the statement simply being reversed to apply to ‘white people’.

Of course, me being me, that doesn’t also mean that I am completely okay with the sweater in question.

The big deal on this flip side of the coin for me is that I, like many other (admittedly privileged) Canadians of European descent, occasionally feel very tired with having to defend the actions of long-dead ancestors I neither know nor would condone the actions of if I did know. I regret, as much as is possible from the displaced viewpoint that time and social change allow, the actions of Europeans in the wholesale invasion, dispossession, and repurposing of land that was formerly occupied and utilized by the First Nations.

An unfortunate reality is that I cannot change those actions. My sorrow will not restore the thousands slaughtered needlessly, nor will an attempt to give back large portions of land revitalize cultural groups that have been shattered and withered by time and abuse. To hold me or others accountable for the actions of many-times-removed relatives makes no more sense than proclaiming that ‘all Germans are Nazis’ or some other equally wrongheaded and disgusting slur.

I realize that I’m not really close to a definitive statement on this issue, or even have an answer. My suspicion is that things like this may continue to be argued from a legal perspective which I’m not that qualified to talk about.

So, I will simply end with a description of how I would hope teachers deal with a situation like this:

Were it me in that classroom, I would pull the student aside and ask them about their sweater, about what they thought it meant. I would have them talk to the class about the feelings it was expressing, and then try to guide a discussion about Canada’s history and what sorts of feelings and situations this message is referring to. My hope would be that this could be the launchpad for a fruitful discussion about the perception of discrimination in Canada, how we treat all racial and cultural groups, and just how far we still have to go as a society before the wounds of past wrongs can actually be healed.

Book Reviews Times Two

Today, we’ll be reviewing two books I’ve read recently, both on the topic of how children learn and perform well at school as well as in life. I’ve mentioned before how it’s easy to feel like you’re falling behind in PD when you don’t have a contract, so I go out of my way to buy and read all sorts of materials that might increase my value to future employers and demonstrate that I’m always looking to get better at my career.

Enough blabber – engage!

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How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Paul Tough, Mariner Books 2013)

This book focuses on a range of case studies taken from a variety of US schools that have attempted to address the current challenges of completion rates and student behaviour that are seen in that country’s system. Covering such section headings as How To Fail (And How Not To), and How To Think, this book leads you on a journey through some truly fascinating programs that I would love to see in action.

In particular, a high point of the book for me was an in-depth discussion about defining a concept called ‘grit’, which the author and the subjects of his interviews eventually decide works out to something like “a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission.” (74) This concept was found to be extremely predictive of student success when educators designed a questionnaire to give a general idea of how much students identify with that quality.

Overall, I found much of the information fascinating, but the book both benefited and suffered from its author’s career as a journalist and magazine writer. He writes very well (in fact, he’s covered education for years), but I really would have liked more information on implementation of these concepts. It’s all very well to hear about the success and a thumbnail sketch of what the scenario looks like, but as a teacher reading this, what I really want is a more in-depth look at the logistics and details of how to do these things correctly.

But in spite of what the book left me wanting, it contains a wealth of valuable information that can certainly inform areas of your own practice. I would recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the non-tests, non-content side of education.

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This is good – another!

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The One World School House: Education Reimagined (Salman Khan, Twelve 2012)

This book deals with the process and thoughts behind Salman Khan’s development of the Khan Academy, an online hub for creating video lessons and self-directed learning programs. This volume caught my eye because the website has been making some headlines in recent years, and it somewhat lines up with my own thoughts and research on technology integration in the classroom.

The thing begins with an expository chapter on Khan’s process to becoming a math tutor for his niece, and his realizations about how learning actually works. This transpositions into a discussion of how the modern public education system tends to let a lot of these principles fall by the wayside. Finally, he examines how he went about setting up the academy and developing the curriculum.

For anyone who wants to examine where some of the downfalls of our current system are, this is a great start. In addition to that, it covers some excellent pointers on the integration of technology and how to develop a classroom that is more self-directed than most of the current day.

A couple of things detracted. For one, Khan occasionally waxes a little too idealistic and superior for my tastes. On a couple of instances, discussions make reference to how learning ‘really works’, and how easy it is for kids to succeed when they are able to choose their own path. While there is a grain of truth in there, Khan’s experiences with children in tutoring dedicated students, working with summer math camps, and a narrow range of classrooms that have access to full computer setups leaves me to treat the various claims with a degree of skepticism, in particular when dealing with students who come from troubled backgrounds and/or near the poverty line.

Secondly, the focus on math above all else, as well as the US math curriculum specifically left me feeling like there was more potential there. Math is undoubtedly important, but the relative paucity of areas of the curriculum besides math as well as focusing on the core standards as decided by the US seems a little shortsighted for a program that is trying to bill itself as a ‘world-class education for everyone’.

That all being said, the book makes a wide range of excellent points about shortcomings of the current system as well as how traditional models of education (dating from the Industrial Revolution) are hopelessly outdated when confronting some of the issues around student achievement and adequate preparation for a 21st-century world.

This book comes with a high recommendation as a thought-provoking read that, if nothing else, will have you thinking about the way we deliver education. Don’t expect this book to give you a point-by-point blueprint for how to completely revolutionize your classroom, but do take a long look at some of the little things that you can do in a small classroom.

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A last note, partially inspired by these two volumes: I’m considering creating a few videos to help with teaching music theory to beginners and/or students who need remedial help. Expect to see some test versions on this blog in the future. I would appreciate anyone’s interest and/or feedback on how to best go about this as well as what kinds of things the larger public thinks might be valuable there.

Good Enough Shouldn’t Be Good Enough

So, this article posted on CBC News this morning caught my wife’s and my attention over our breakfast. Particularly my wife, since she is in fact a science and mathematics specialist (who incidentally can teach those in two different languages – yes, I feel intimidated, why do you ask?). For those of you who don’t want to parse the full text (although it isn’t that complicated), Canada has been downgraded slightly from its usual position on the international rankings of education system, in particular, trending downwards in math and science.

Particularly of interest was the fact that reading scores have been pretty much stable, science very slightly down, and math more significantly down. Also of note, females perform better than males (in Canada) at reading, males perform better at math, and the genders are equal in science.

Now, to go along with this, there is, of course, the typical government hedges and dry statements. Basically it all comes down to “Canada still has pretty darn good scores and our students are still very well educated, but we want to do better”. Then everyone chimes in with how that’s going to happen, regardless of experience with or in the field of education itself (in particular, the fact that many of our provincial ministers for education are not and have not been teachers is somewhat unsettling). For anyone who actually finds random facts interesting, of the provinces and territories (there are 13 total), a grand total of 2 have ministers who have actually been classroom teachers, while another 3 or so have had some experience as a public school trustee.

The article mentions several other countries as having performance above that of Canada, and so of course my wife and I thought and talked about why those particular countries might be outperforming us.

The obvious ones are spotted right away. China, Japan, and Korea are very culturally different from us, and have an education system that is brutally competitive and overloaded with immense pressure from home to do well. Students attend school for longer, have more homework, and in general are forced to work much harder for their success than in Canada.  There’s very little left to say there – when the entire culture values the high standards of performance, students meet them.

Secondly, our ‘traditional’ competitor, a country that had been at the very top until recently – Finland. This is the most interesting one to me, because I’ll regularly talk about how good Finland is at education and people say something to the effect of “Why can’t we be that good?”.

The answer is very simple – we don’t value education (as a culture) to the same extent.

You can see this in the very foundations of how Finland’s system works. I don’t know all of the specifics, but here is an excellent interview from last year with an education expert from Finland. Also, their Wikipedia entries seem overall fairly reliable to me, so hit that one up as well. The key is that Finland trusts its teachers, and its teachers are exceptional teachers.

If you want to be a teacher in Finland, you probably need a Master’s degree. Many teacher prep programs have acceptance rates of 10% or lower. That’s like medical school. Teachers in Finland are hand-picked for their beneficial qualities as teachers, and trained rigorously for years in their craft. Once they graduate, they are going to be given autonomy to exercise those skills: local principals hire and fire their staff, and within a very general framework, schools can customize and create their own curriculum so teachers are teaching both what they are good at and know well, in addition to the looser national standards.

There’s a commonality to the Finnish and Eastern (sorry for the west-centric terminology) system, which is that they don’t believe in a ‘good enough’. If you get a 70 in Japan, you’re not getting a job, so you’d better bust your butt to improve. If you want to be a teacher in Finland, you need to be at the very top of your career path. In Canada, we have this problem not only in schools, but particularly in the home.

This is something I see all the time. Billy’s parents come in for a parent teacher interview and the conversation turns to his English mark, which is ‘passing’, but isn’t great (let’s say 67 percent). I express concerns, the parents don’t share them. When Billy gets 65 on his next test and I express privately to him that I think he’s capable of better, he shrugs it off and says “Meh, I didn’t fail. It’s good.”

Now I know for a fact that if I’d come home with a 65 on anything, my parents would have stepped in to find out what everyone could do to help that improve. I am just as sure of the fact that the non-concern I see with students about their learning flows back from the home, as my family life impacted my schooling. It’s a common phenomenon that my wife and I chuckle about which is that the parents who most consistently make contact with you and come in for checkups are the ones you don’t really need to talk to – their kids are busy scoring 90 on everything they touch, sometimes even 100. But it really shows where your values lie.

If we want to keep the education system in Canada doing well (and make no mistake, we do get a good education in Canada), we need to shift some values. More people need to stand up and say that ‘good enough’ is not in fact ‘good enough’. Good enough gets you beat to space by the Soviets. Good enough gets you zero scholarships. Good enough means you just lost that job interview to the person who really buckled down for it.

As a musician, I don’t want the audience to say, “Well, that was good enough”. I want an audience that can’t tell me how amazing that was because they’re crying tears of joy (okay, maybe that is a pipe dream that probably won’t ever come true but I still want it because feelings). Don’t settle. Not just for your education, but for everything. It’s not ‘good enough’ if you haven’t mastered it yet.

Learning from the Past

“Politics has lost its attraction to a lot of people.”

This is something that former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark, one of the most respected politicians and statespersons in Canadian history, said during an interview on a CBC Radio program “Q”, a couple of weeks ago. The interview (which starts at about 17:00 or so) is well worth checking out:

http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/podcasts/qpodcast_20131114_85523.mp3

For anyone who hasn’t been reading between the lines of my various posts that deal with politics, public policy, and rights issues, I’m a pretty liberal kind of guy. I like my healthcare and education heavily funded, my human rights as complete as possible. As such, the word ‘conservative’ in politics, particularly Canadian politics, tends to signal me to be a little bit wary. However, I have always enjoyed listening to Joe Clark. He’s a self-described ‘Red Tory’ which is a way of saying something along the lines of: “I’m a bit on the right/conservative but I hedge everything towards the centre for the greater good.”

This interview serves up some real gems that I think hold immense value to how we deal with each other as societies. Here are a few of my favourites…

“Our tone is now almost adolescent…” – Clark on how Canada is acting lately in international circles.

Here, he was referring to the increasing tendency to loudly proclaim things without doing an incredible amount. As an elaboration on this, I would argue that this typifies a great deal of the international wrangling I read about in the news. Nations sniping at each other over agreements, refusing flat out to go along with anything that isn’t looking out for Number One… the list can go on.

Of course, you can also make this argument about many people as a whole. “It’s not fair that [x] happened”, “It’s the economy’s fault, not mine”, and a host of other complaints reflect, at least in the developed world, a very entitled populace. As a teacher this definitely rubs me the wrong way, as I try to do my best to instill a sense of responsibility and maturity in my students, and sometimes have the way blocked by adults who address some scenarios like it was recess and someone else is taking ‘their’ blocks which are really the school’s blocks, and a tantrum develops.

“The purpose of foreign policy is to encourage as much stability as possible in the world.” … “[Our] national interest… depends a great deal on having a world that works.” – Clark on the purpose and end goals of national foreign policy.

This really hit home for me. I studied Political Science as a minor in university, and when looking at International Relations, it was all framed by this question of national interest. Clark’s take on this is part of the reason I respect him so highly in spite of our political differences (well, that and the fact that he is old enough to be my grandfather). He managed to crystallize in a couple of simple sentences why I feel there’s so much tension and struggle in the world.

Just like in a classroom when you have Billy complaining that the questions are too difficult and Sally complaining that she is bored, you have nations that aren’t thinking of the bigger picture. Billy might find the questions hard, but their purpose is to be hard, to stretch his mental muscles and leave him a more complete understanding of the world and his own abilities. Sally might be bored for a variety of reasons, but if boredom strikes, one has to learn how to fight through it and discipline the mind to complete the required tasks anyways. Nothing can be 100% interesting all the time, and the world does not care one fig for your boredom if you refuse to do an essential task for such a subjective reason.

I sometimes chuckle to myself at the similarity of teenaged students to kindergarten students. Now, I can make the comparison even broader and wonder at the kindergarten-type behaviour of national policy-makers.

This is all conditional, and more than a little tongue-in-cheek, of course. The issues that these people deal with are incredibly complex, and determine the well-being of many more people than I touch in a day with my teaching. But I can wish that a few more of them saw the world like the Right Honourable Joe Clark.

Thanks for a great interview, Mr. Clark, and I am very grateful for your continued efforts to make the world that little tiny bit better, and help us all to learn from your past.

Purgatory

I haven’t posted in a long time. Mostly it’s because of this feeling of being at loose ends, in limbo – in a sort of purgatory, if you will.

The job market for teachers where I live is very tough right now. Funding at the provincial level that trickles down to the local districts was cut yet again at the end of last year, and I was one of the victims of said funding cuts (almost all ‘temporary’ teaching contracts get the same treatment whenever it looks like money is tight). It’s not really anything I can blame anybody in particular for – you need to pay teachers, and hard choices that no one likes get made in that sort of situation.

So, in absence of job prospects, what do you do with your life?

There are short and easy answers, fairly typical answers, things like: “Take your resume around to everybody you can; catch up on sleep; play some videogames in some of your spare time that isn’t spent job-hunting; etc.”. For me as a musician as well as teacher, I end up doing things like musical theatre, any gigs I can lay my hands on, and substitute teaching.

I’ve spoken a fair bit before I got hired onto a temporary contract about subbing, but it’s different going back to that when you’ve had a taste of what it’s like to be in the classroom all the time. In particular, one day stood out for me earlier in this school year – I went back for a day of teaching at the school I had worked at all the previous year. It was nice to see students I knew and cherished again, but it also made my stomach roil and my soul hurt – these are students I love and don’t get to see almost ever anymore. It’s one of those dull aches that I assume are similar to having a separation from a partner, children, or beloved pet. I didn’t, and don’t, like it.

You also fall behind your peers. For anyone who isn’t a teacher and/or doesn’t know exactly what teachers do with those random Fridays off that we get occasionally, in Canada teachers are obligated to work together and continually try to improve their practice. These days are often linked by thematic ideas: working on classroom communities, teaching using acting, techniques to improve reading acquisition skills, etc. Well, I don’t get to do any of that when I’m just a substitute teacher. And as I am no longer in a full-time university program, I don’t get the same opportunities to develop my knowledge and practice, both of which are things that can be very helpful in obtaining the next job that comes along.

So what I have decided to do is read some books and articles, trying to put myself in a position where maybe I have a slightly unique set of teacher knowledge to bring to the table at my next interview. I am also going to review those books on here for any of you that are interested in learning, teaching, behaviour, or neuroscience (books I choose about learning tend to have strong brain-research correlations).

Maybe then I can get out of Dante’s second book.

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